Photo: Legs, the original.
Michael Chang was elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, today. Chang is the youngest male to win a grand slam tournament. He was just 17 and a few months when he triumphed at the French Open after an inspiring two weeks of tennis. That wasn't the apex of Chang's career, though. He would be the first to tell you that he was a much better player at 30 than 17. Chang's highest ranking was #2 and he spent seven consecutive years in the top ten. He came oh-so-close to winning the US Open and played some memorable matches there.
Ask fans who saw tennis in person during the 1990s "who was the most exciting player to watch in that era?" The answer might surprise you. Agassi and Sampras were magnificent, but you never failed to get your money's worth with Chang. Although listed at 5-7, Chang was not taller than 5-5, believe me. His small stature and lack of power on the serve meant he had to work so hard for each point. With his piston-like thighs (the most muscular I ever saw), Chang raced around the court - all of it. Every match was competitive because of his height and weight, yet he never failed to disappoint.
And he competed like a gladiator. I often thought it odd that no one compared Chang to Jimmy Connors, because he was Jimmy's heir in competitiveness and heart, but (thankfully) not attitude. Sportswriters have a habit of only comparing black with black and white with white. Since Chang was neither he was beyond their frame of reference. But watch video of Chang, fist pumping and chugging around the tennis court and tell me that doesn't remind you of Connors.
It's amazing that Chang played a style that was so physically demanding and destructive to the body and yet remained in the top ten for seven years, in an era that I believe was a little more competitive than today on the men's side. To illustrate how hard this is to do, look at Lleyton Hewitt - champion at Wimbledon and the US Open, former #1- now out of the top ten. His Chang-like style has already let him down. Andre Agassi had ten times the talent of Chang, yet he spent his career crashing out of the top hundred and then back in the top ten, a roller coaster for all but the last half-decade.
I also look at Rafa Nadal and think of Chang. Their styles are different. But the abuse to the body of playing full-bore on every point and not winning many free points is taking its toll on Nadal already in terms of injuries and running out of gas by August. Even though Nadal is unbeatable on clay and challenging Roger, everyone in the tennis world is assuming Nadal will have to adapt his game in the years ahead if he wants to stay near the top.